Shipwrecks - the recovery

Friday, July 18, 2014
NIAGARA, BIll Laxon Collection, Voyager NZMM
Travel by sea was fairly dangerous in the 19th century. Ships were wrecked because of the lack of lighthouses to guide them; the inaccuracy of maps and lack of knowledge of new coastlines. In the 20th century, knowledge and resources improved and ships were made of iron or steel instead of wood, but disasters still occurred. War has added to the danger of the sea throughout history and has come close to our shores.

RMS NIAGARA was an ocean liner owned by the Union Steam Ship Company, launched in 1912. It was the biggest ship in the South Pacific at the time, weighing 13,415 tons. At the start of WWII NIAGARA was operating a service between Suva and Vancouver, and Auckland.

On 13th June 1940, during World War II, the German raider ship ORION, disguised as a Dutch trader, laid several hundred mines across the Hauraki Gulf. At 3:40am on 19th June the ship NIAGARA struck and detonated one of those mines and sank to a depth of 131m, 30 miles from the entrance to Whangarei Harbour.

Thankfully, all 349 people on board made it onto the ship’s 18 lifeboats and no lives were lost. However, a large consignment of gold from the Bank of England, worth £2,500,000, that was being carried went down with the ship. The British gold was intended to pay for arms being purchased from the United States for WWII.

In spite of the danger of the remaining mines, later in 1940, a crew and an old coastal steamer CLAYMORE were enlisted to locate the wreck and reclaim the gold.

In February 1941 a diver in a steel cylinder observation bell identified the discovered wreck as that of NIAGARA, and after months of blasting through the wreck under water, in October 1941 the first of the gold was recovered.

By the time the salvage ceased in December that year, 555 gold bars worth approximately £2,379,000 were retrieved. 30 more were found in a separate salvage mission in 1953, but 5 bars remain unrecovered.

Bell (observation chamber) Voyager NZMM
Crew celebrating the first gold bars recovered. Voyager NZMM collection
Model of NIAGARA by John Brown & Co. Voyager NZMM collection, on display in Oceans Apart gallery